When You Can Afford to Wait, When You Can’t

There’s an important lesson for Makers All in the tragedy of California’s abysmal poverty rate: sometimes you can wait to deal with a slow building crisis, and sometimes you can’t.

When the cost of housing started rising in Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley techies and investors didn’t pay any attention. When everyone is working crazy hours — and everyone is preaching that what they’re doing is going to revolutionize society — nobody wanted to stop and ask, how are we shaping society? And you can’t talk about housing costs without talking about land regulations and other issues that have to do with government, and everybody in Silicon Valley was smugly confident that government was too slow to waste time paying attention to. Besides, if your motto is “move fast and break things,” your hidden assumption is that you can always easily fix what you broke later.

But land and housing aren’t fluid the way software and hardware is. And as Silicon Valley’s newfound wealth collided with scarce housing, the cost of housing took off like a rocket. And once an area has been built up and housing has become insanely expensive, fixing what you broke is damn near impossible.

The same was true with Bay Area progressives, especially in San Francisco and Berkeley. Their mantra was “think globally, act locally” — and by “locally” they meant just their city. Before I left the Bay Area I was briefly involved with some progressive groups in Silicon Valley, and I was always amazed at how completely uninterested progressives in San Francisco and Berkeley were in what was happening right next door to them. They knew a lot more about the Sandinistas than they did about Silicon Valley. Between that and a shortsighted focus on rent control to the exclusion of broader housing strategies, they were completely unprepared as Silicon Valley’s housing prices started applying pressure to the very affordable housing markets of Berkeley and San Francisco (when I was a grad student in the 80s and early 90s, if you didn’t mind living in group houses you could survive quite comfortably on a tiny salary). At some level, they were making the same mistake as Silicon Valley techies: they assumed they could always worry about Silicon Valley and housing prices later.

It’s understandable that both of these groups made this mistake. But when it comes to the potential threat of mass unemployment due to robots and AI, we can’t afford to repeat it. We need to be asking ourselves now, what are the decisions we can wait to make, and what decisions and actions do we need to start taking in the next few years? Because what’s at stake here isn’t whether California housing will be affordable, it’s whether our society and our democracy will survive.

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